codex, not print

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 2 In December 2006, at the MLA in Philadelphia, I had the opportunity to hear Peter Stallybrass give a paper whose title indicated that it would focus on the relationship between textual studies — or the application of material culture approaches to the study of textual production — and the book. At the very outset of his presentation, however, he made a somewhat startling claim; in asking who, exactly, it is that produces the thing we know as the book, he overturned several basic assumptions about that form’s production often unconsciously held by both literary scholars and textual critics. Authors do not write books, he argued, suggesting that, actually, authors write sentences, or, on a larger scale, texts. But neither do printers produce books; printers, instead, produce pages. The primary argument that Stallybrass’s paper sought to make was about the need for textual studies scholars to think in terms of pages, both bound and unbound, in order to escape what he called “the tyranny of the book” (Stallybrass 2006).

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 4 In setting up this argument, however, Stallybrass suggested, almost as an aside, that the book is a production, finally, of the binder. This is a point I’d like to dwell on a bit, as it suggests that the bookness of the book derives less from its material composition — ink-on-paper — than from its organization, the sequenced, bound, and cut leaves. As the conventional wisdom holds, it is the development of that form — the shift from the scroll to the codex — that, as Stallybrass argues in “Books and Scrolls: Navigating the Bible,” enabled “the capacity for random access” (42), allowing a reader to turn immediately to any particular point in a text, thus facilitating the reader’s active engagement in and manipulation of the textual object. Turning our material focus from print to binding as the source of bookness holds significant implications for scholars working on new, electronic modes of textuality, and in particular, on the future of the book. For if this is the case, that the formal properties of the book that have the greatest impact on our reading experience are derived not from print, but rather from the codex, one might suggest that researchers working on new ways of transforming ink-on-paper to pixels-on-screens may be working on the wrong problem, or at least the wrong aspect of a knottier problem than it has at moments appeared. This paper presents one perspective on the need to develop a web-native replacement for the codex form, culminating in an analysis of the approach to that problem taken by CommentPress, a recently released project of the Institute for the Future of the Book.

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